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Nuclear Power: Problem or Solution

Nuclear power is complicated. A nuclear power plant provides energy that does not contribute to global warming. Climate concerns have seen a rise in the construction of new reactors to address growing demands of electricity worldwide.

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Currently the United States and Canada receive 20% of their electric power from nuclear plants. The rest of the world is at 6% but rising. The benefits drive the nuclear energy movement and continue to do so and the proponents of nuclear power see this as an indispensable solution in reducing the consumption of conflict-ridden fossil fuels.

Opponents of nuclear power also make a strong case citing cost, safety and justified global concern of waste storage and the potential for nuclear weapons in areas where terrorism is a major concern. These plants provide the uranium and plutonium regarded as critical components of nuclear weapons. This will be discussed in depth in this paper. This paper will also detail the benefits and detriments of the future growth of nuclear power plants across the globe. The first uses of nuclear technology were the bombs dropped in Japan in the 1940’s.

In the 1950’s physicists and engineers harnessed this power and presented it as a less costly and an alternative form of energy. Nuclear power plants were built with an eye to safety; this was the main concern early on. The 103 reactors in the U. S. today supply 25% more electricity than 109 reactors did a decade ago. This has been achieved through improvements in management, reliability and productivity. In 2010, Taking Sides, Clashing Views on Environmental Issues states that favorability to nuclear energy was running at 67% of Americans in favor of using this technology.

The gap of people against this was closing. These companies were being seen as valuable and all operating licenses were being renewed. Impressive gains in output and reliability at many nuclear power plants have the industry looking to build more plants. Nuclear power is being accepted as the core strength of the U. S. electric supply. And in this “green” era, nuclear is seen as the main source of assisting the U. S. in meeting clean air goals. The Clean Air Act of 1970 set out to improve air quality and nuclear power plants are credited as one big reason that compliance was met.

Electric vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles are becoming more in demand and the clean electricity from nuclear power is driving policymakers to continue to support nuclear technology. These vehicles reduce carbon emissions, noise, maintenance and reduced oil usage and reliance on foreign oil. Clean energy is paramount to a sustainable development globally. As the population continues to grow, the demand for energy increases and harnessing wind and solar should increase because they are good options and do not contribute directly to air or water pollution.

These renewable fuels contribute in a positive way to a sustainable world but they just don’t produce enough electricity yet, they are considered good alternate options in conjunction with nuclear energy. The nuclear age started with the thought of this form of generating electricity being less costly. That did not prove to be the case, in the beginning, but today nuclear energy is once again being heralded as a value proposition. The volume of electricity that can be produced and done so in a clean and safe way is looked at as a way to provide environmental attributes and price stability.

The Department of Energy’s Nuclear Power of 2010 program created a partnership between government and industry and ensured adequate funding for the building of new plants. The planned investment was $650 million dollars over several years and assists with the need of program stability and resources necessary to ensure future viability. The U. S. faces an imminent energy crisis and even though electric power is only 3 to 4 % of our gross domestic product, the other 96 or 97% depends on that to fuel our $11 trillion dollar economy.

Nuclear energy will remain a front runner because of the reliable and continuous source of energy it provides and it allows us, as a nation, to lead the world in decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels. Coal is abundant across many parts of the globe but contributes to global warming (there is research and development in developing a “clean” coal and this has been proven viable but bringing it to market at a competitive price has not happened). Natural gas is also fairly abundant but unsustainable in power generation and makes little sense.

This being said enhances the argument for nuclear energy plants to assume that the future plants being built will continue to grow worldwide and that as this continues, the industry will strive to address cost and bolster safety. The other side of this issue sheds a different light on the same subject. The expense of nuclear energy is measured differently. Financial expense is a factor but fear is the most major concern. Nuclear energy has no pollution or emissions but the by-products of the process namely waste, and how it is stored, transported and discarded is regarded by many as the downside of nuclear energy.

The safety of power plants was the original concern but as these expanded across our country and the world, the waste has come to be a mightier concern from the holding and containing in plants, to the transporting over highways and ultimately the storage of these toxic materials, with a half-life of a thousand years. The potential harm of radioactive waste is to humans, wildlife and the environment. This waste contains plutonium, uranium and other elements along with parts of atoms. Nuclear waste needs to decay following a cooling process.

Even after the waste has been out of the reactor for 10 years, a human coming within a meter of it would die in three minutes. Waste from the first generation of reactors has not been successfully dealt with and that said, this leaves all reactors that followed looking toward a solution and the prediction of over a 100,000 metric tons of waste by 2035 that needs to be completely isolated from the environment for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years because it is so deadly. Sendai, Japan had an 8. 9 earthquake on March 11, 2011 that was followed by a tsunami of immense proportions.

There was a nuclear power plant in operation called Fukushima-Daiichi that continues to be in the news more than six weeks after the disasters and the story continues to unfold. The first thing to point out, in fairness, is that these were unlike Three Mile Island and Chernobyl because the problems that resulted were not the result of human error. The built in safety measures detecting an earthquake worked and as soon as the quake was detected, the plant started an automated, preprogrammed shut down and all the safety elements were working to achieve a cooling and treatment of the decay heat.

Diesel generators provide the power to drive the pumps for the water coolant necessary to circulate through the reactors, removing the decay heat but when the tsunami hit, the diesel generators that were necessary to provide power necessary for the pumps was lost. There were other backup systems but they too were lost and the fear of melt down and radiation being spewed into the atmosphere ensued. Heat removal could have continued indefinitely if there was power but that was not the case due to the tsunami.

Radiation levels are high and more than 6,000 families in surrounding cities have been told to leave the area. Minor traces of the radiation were found in the drinking water in my state, Massachusetts and this drives home the point of how small our world has become and why we all need to be better informed of the world around us. Radiation and its side effects are nasty and can take years to manifest illness and cancers. There are also some discrepancies on how much area should be evacuated and there are many varying reports. The U. S. cientists seem to share a common number of 50+ miles, Japan is saying 12. The Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant problems echo most people’s concerns about nuclear safety and have started a concentrated look at nuclear power plants that are built in earthquake prone areas. This concern has spread to Germany where more than 60,000 protestors have been assembling outside the major nuclear plants in that area. The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) is trying to assure people around the world that new safeties were already on the drawing board addressing issues like the one in Japan.

Nuclear energy had been enjoying resurgence with relative calm before the tragedy in Japan. India and China had a plan to add a thousand new nuclear sites in the next two decades. Japan nuclear facilities have withstood many earthquakes; the tsunami is what brought this one down. Opponents are still focused on the long term and the storage, handling, transporting and long term storage of the hazardous waste that is a lethal by-product of nuclear energy. The following is from www. wagingpeace. org and states the risks in a succinct way: ?Nuclear Waste ?Nuclear waste is produced in many different ways.

There are wastes produced in the reactor core, wastes created as a result of radioactive contamination, and wastes produced as a byproduct of uranium mining, refining, and enrichment. The vast majority of radiation in nuclear waste is given off from spent fuel rods. ?A typical reactor will generate 20 to 30 tons of high-level nuclear waste annually. There is no known way to safely dispose of this waste, which remains dangerously radioactive until it naturally decays. ?The rate of decay of a radioactive isotope is called its half-life, the time in which half the initial amount of atoms present takes to decay.

The half-life of Plutonium-239, one particularly lethal component of nuclear waste, is 24,000 years. ?The hazardous life of a radioactive element (the length of time that must elapse before the material is considered safe) is at least 10 half-lives. Therefore, Plutonium-239 will remain hazardous for at least 240,000 years. ?There is a current proposal to dump nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. ?The plan is for Yucca Mountain to hold all of the high level nuclear waste ever produced from every nuclear power plant in the US.

However, that would completely fill up the site and not account for future waste. ?Transporting the wastes by truck and rail would be extremely dangerous. ?For a more detailed analysis of the problems of and risks incurred by the plan, see Top Ten Reasons to Oppose the DoE’s Yucca Mountain Plan ?Repository sites in Australia, Argentina, China, southern Africa, and Russia have also been considered. ?Though some countries reprocess nuclear waste (in essence, preparing it to send through the cycle again to create more energy), this process is banned in the U.

S. due to increased proliferation risks, as the reprocessed materials can also be used for making bombs. Reprocessing is also not a solution because it just creates additional nuclear waste. ?The best action would be to cease producing nuclear energy (and waste), to leave the existing waste where it is, and to immobilize it. There are a few different methods of waste immobilization. In the vitrification process, waste is combined with glass-forming materials and melted. Once the materials solidify, the waste is trapped inside and can’t easily be released.

The final concern for the purpose of this paper goes back to the second to last point from wagingpeace. org. The U. S. is banned from reprocessing nuclear waste because those materials are necessary components when making a bomb. There is a volunteer group called the National Supplies Group (NSG) and they enforce guidelines to members and oversee exports to ensure that the technologies and materials are treated properly and are not being used to contribute to proliferation. The NSG has 46 member states but Israel, India and Pakistan are not among them.

This is frightening and makes one question why it is not mandatory to be part of this NSG. It seems that the rules should be the same for each state or country when dealing with nuclear energy and makes one wonder what the IAEA contributes. Nuclear energy is complicated. If I was writing this before the March 11, 2011 disasters in Japan, I would be impressed by how far the industry has evolved. Natural disasters are just that, natural and occurring more and more. The strength of Hurricane Katrina was blamed on global warming and makes me wonder if we had more nuclear energy would the storm have been less severe.

I don’t know that I gave a lot of thought to nuclear energy before this course and it seems that many movies I have seen over the years usually involves smuggling of components necessary for use in weapons of mass destruction. It now appears that this is a very real threat and one that needs full worldwide regulation. I think nuclear energy is here to stay and that the growth will be immense to keep up with the population and to decrease emissions. This product is a bit of an enigma to me. It strives to do good but has the potential to create so much evil. Nuclear energy and all it’s by-products are very complicated.

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